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King's Speech

January 13, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

U2 performing MLK

 Common, “A Dream”

Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of the most vocal and prolific proponents of a path to peace through nonviolence. He fought with words and love and forgiveness, instead of fear and anger. He responded to death threats, violence and hatred with patience and understanding. Though Martin Luther King, Jr. sought for equality during the civil rights movement, his words transcend any single movement. For example, he defines peace as “not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.” For quotes such as this as well as his many other great words and actions, our government dedicates the third Monday of January in reverence of peace and justice.

The concept of justice is difficult, layered by changes with each government and culture. The Merriam-Webster dictionary lists justice as “the quality of being just, impartial or fair” or “conformity to truth, fact or reason”. Whether you believe in Plato's harmonious civil society, or John Locke's natural law, there is no denying the great impact that a contemporary understanding of justice has upon society. Justice is, in fact, a foundational feature of society, whether we notice it in our daily lives or not.

In the Proclamation of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Ronald Reagan said, “He [King] wanted 'to transform the jangling discords of our Nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.'” And so, in a seemingly literal response, Martin Luther King's words have been incorporated into many styles of music, fiction and art. Yet, his most quoted speech (“I Have a dream”), only grants the barest essence of his life's work. His words have traveled the world, through all genres and arts.

Society depends upon and changes with the way we understand “justice”. King's Nobel Prize acceptance speech offers a fantastic opportunity to listen to the accumulation of his teachings, presented in his own words and style. No matter what medium delivers his words to us, there is no doubt that Martin Luther King, Jr.'s words have affected our cultural understanding of justice. To set aside a day for the celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr., therefore, is also a proclamation for peace. I encourage you to spend five minutes of your day understanding Martin Luther King, Jr.'s version of peace and justice. Compare it to what you know of Plato's or Locke's or Mill's or the concepts defined in the songs by U2 or Common. (Note that there are many songs which incorporate King's words, these are only two examples).

As a start, this excerpt comes from Martin Luther King's Nobel Prize acceptance speech:

“Yet, in spite of these spectacular strides in science and technology, and still unlimited ones to come, something basic is missing. There is a sort of poverty of the spirit which stands in glaring contrast to our scientific and technological abundance. The richer we have become materially, the poorer we have become morally and spiritually. We have learned to fly the air like birds and swim the sea like fish, but we have not learned the simple art of living together as brothers.

 

“Every man lives in two realms, the internal and the external. The internal is that realm of spiritual ends expressed in art, literature, morals, and religion. The external is that complex of devices, techniques, mechanisms, and instrumentalities by means of which we live. Our problem today is that we have allowed the internal to become lost in the external. We have allowed the means by which we live to outdistance the ends for which we live. So much of modern life can be summarized in that arresting dictum of the poet Thoreau: 'Improved means to an unimproved end'. This is the serious predicament, the deep and haunting problem confronting modern man. If we are to survive today, our moral and spiritual 'lag' must be eliminated. Enlarged material powers spell enlarged peril if there is not proportionate growth of the soul. When the 'without' of man's nature subjugates the 'within', dark storm clouds begin to form in the world.”

For the transcript or audio of the full speech, please visit the archive at nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1964/king-lecture.html

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